Why Colleges Catch Flak for Selling Their Art

There's nothing wrong with raising money this way. So give these schools a break -- or a donation.

It's never just for the sake of art.

Photographer: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

The president of Fisk University is in trouble for quietly selling two valuable paintings from the university’s art collection to raise money for the financially struggling institution. This isn’t the first time Fisk has faced such criticism. Nor is it alone: a few years ago Brandeis University was pressured to reverse its decision to close its art gallery and sell 6,000 artworks at auction.

There’s something strange about the view that universities should never sell their art, no matter what. At its worst, selling art can look like philistinism. But a university’s highest priority should be educating its students. If that requires selling the family jewels, we should recognize that this may be the right choice.

At least one of the two paintings sold by Fisk was significant, and connected to the legacy of the historically black college. The painting, “Asbury Park South,” depicts promenading African-Americans and others in elegant Jazz Age outfits. We don’t know how much the university got for the painting because the sale was private, not at auction.

The Nashville, Tennessee-based college received similar attention a few years ago after it planned to sell two works by photographer Alfred Stieglitz. That decision was challenged by the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, which had donated them in the first place. The foundation said the works had been given on the condition that they not be sold; ultimately, the foundation and the university agreed that the works would be displayed at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, and the university got $30 million out of the deal.

The paintings recently sold were owned unconditionally by the university and there’s no question it had the right to sell them. So why has the university’s decision draw criticism?

The answer has something to do with cultural values -- and with cultural snobbery. Consider what happened in 2009 when Brandeis proposed selling all the works in its Rose Gallery of Art. The decision had been reached by the board of trustees in conjunction with the president. It made financial sense for the university, at least in immediate terms.

Yet a barrage of public criticism forced the university to reverse the decision. A couple of years later, the president quit amid speculation that he mismanaged the process.

The best argument against university art sales is that educational institutions are supposed to represent higher values -- the pursuit of knowledge rather than the pursuit of money. Running an English department may not be profitable, but that shouldn’t mean a university stops teaching poetry. In this sense, displaying art is like embracing the humanities: It’s a way to promote the things that give life deeper meaning. To sell art is therefore to deny, at some level, the value of the intangible human spirit.

Unfortunately, alongside this strong argument is a hint of class superiority. Selling art makes an institution seem culturally impoverished, or at least highlights its actual poverty. In fact, there’s nothing shameful in having to sell assets once in a while. But dumping artworks somehow seems like a concession to worldly concerns and a loss of status.

No doubt that’s because buying art -- and donating it -- is an act that confers status. To purchase and display or give away something of purely aesthetic value signifies confidence and taste.

One of the reasons Brandeis had to keep its art was that critics pointed out that the university would lose prestige in the event of a sale, which would in turn make it harder to raise money from new donors. That’s parallel to the claim that sales like Fisk’s make it less likely that donors would give art. A benefactor who truly wanted to help a university probably wouldn’t care if it sold his or her donated art. But a philanthropist who wanted the psychic value of seeing a plaque on the wall naming the donor might well object.

The real question is whether a university should treat its works of art as commodities to be sold in a pinch or as fetishes to be worshipped and preserved no matter what. The former view may be a bit crude. But the latter view is absurd for an institution facing financial strain and deep cuts to its education mission. History, legacy and atmosphere can enhance the educational experience. But ultimately, they are supposed to serve education, not take priority over it. Give Fisk a break. Or give it a donation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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